Steve Bartkowski was back in the pocket. This time, however, he was surrounded by a group of reporters eager to spark the flames of that age-old preseason favorite: The Quarterback Controversy.
Bartkowski felt more pressure from linemen with sacks on their minds than writers looking for juicy quotes in 11 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. But Monday he appeared as much at ease in the press room of the Rams' Cal State Fullerton training headquarters as he did on the field in 1983, when he passed for more than 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns.
And he was considerably more gracious toward his "opponent." So gracious, in fact, that if he doesn't get the starting quarterback job, Bartkowski should think about taking over as Dieter Brock's publicity agent.
"Dieter has a strong arm. In fact, he's got a gun," Bartkowski said. "I think he did a remarkable job last year, considering he was literally a rookie in the NFL. And I think any quarterback who gets one game away from the Super Bowl deserves a pat on the back."
So much for back-stabbing.
"I really like and respect him. He's a fine guy. I think it's a good situation for both of us. We don't have to have a fist fight to see who gets the job."
But then Bartkowski doesn't figure he'll have to resort to violence. He wasn't quite ecstatic when the Falcons released him after five games last year, but when the Rams signed him as a free agent during the off-season, he began to look at it as his big chance to realize a dream.
"I've done everything I want to in my career except win a world championship," he said. "I've had personal success, great seasons, things you can treasure at some point. But the thing that keeps me going now is the thought of that locker room after the big game. I really want to experience that."
Bartkowski is confident the Rams are a team on the verge of becoming a dominant force in the NFL, a team with the dynamics to go all the way. He thinks maybe he's destined to lead the way and expects to be in the Rams' opening-day lineup.
"I thought this was an opportunity to play or I wouldn't have considered coming here," he said. "In this game you have to be of the frame of mind that if you get a chance, you can play better than the guy who was in there."
Brock critics would be quick to say that wouldn't take much. But it's Coach John Robinson that Bartkowski must impress. So, while Brock was sidelined with a nagging back injury, Bartkowski was in between the lines Monday, firing spirals.
"I think we're off to a good start with the quarterbacks," Robinson said. "We have a really positive environment . . . and I hope it stays that way. These men are all positive. They all expect to succeed."
Robinson admitted that he's worried Brock might try to push his ailing back to keep pace with Bartkowski and Steve Dils in the race for No. 1. But he knows the comparisons will go on, even if Brock can only watch for a while.
"I have a different motion than Dieter," Bartkowski said. "I don't know if it's as strong, but I like to think of my arm as accurate. I want to put the ball where the receiver, and no one else, can catch it."
He's accomplished that exceptionally well during his career, considering that the Falcon offensive line could best be described as porous at times. In 1983, for example, he threw just five interceptions and set a club record with 197 passes without an interception.
"I guess it's knowing your limitations and knowing the safest place to throw, instinctively, without thinking," he said. "And a lot of it has to do with an overall understanding of the game. There's only seven, eight, maybe nine defensive coverage patterns, and I've seen them all so many times. You get into a groove where there are no surprises on Sunday. It's just a matter of experience."
Brock's defenders would say that Robinson's less-than-imaginative, pitch-the-ball-to-No. 29 offense was a bigger reason for Brock's less-than-impressive debut in the NFL than inexperience.
Bartkowski, however, is confident this season's game plan will open some eyes . . . not to mention the passing lanes.
"I'm not that familiar with what they did last year," he said, "but talking to Dieter and Steve, they're much more excited about the quarterback being part of the offense.
"I like what they're doing with the offense . . . really. They throw the ball downfield and use timing-type passes. It suits what I do best: Make a quick decision and get the ball gone.
"They want the quarterback to take five steps and throw and keep himself healthy back there. I like that emphasis."
Robinson, who is the first to admit that the Rams' passing game was weak last season, said he is determined to make it successful this year.
"We want to have a scheme tailored for our people," Robinson said. "We don't have mobile people, so we have to protect them and throw the ball quickly. I think it's appropriate for our skill. And I think our quarterbacks can look at it and say, 'I can do that.' "